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Syracuse University WiSE program supports, encourages female students, faculty in STEM

Julianna Meddick

When Karin Ruhlandt first came to Syracuse University in 1993, she was the only woman in the chemistry department.

Ruhlandt, the current dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was the sole female in the department until the next woman was hired in 2000. Currently, only 16 percent of the faculty members in the chemistry department are women, including Ruhlandt.

Ruhlandt is co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering program, which aims to increase the recruitment and retention of women faculty in sciences, mathematics, engineering and computer sciences. The program also focuses on bringing distinguished women in these fields to SU and assisting students studying STEM subjects with their research projects.

One of the program’s initiatives supports women of color in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, which is the most underrepresented group on the SU campus, Ruhlandt said.

“I think the climate on campus is much more inclusive toward women,” Ruhlandt said of the current atmosphere toward women in STEM subjects. “I think you can tell. You can feel it.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation, SU ADVANCE is a program that was created as a result of WiSE. Through ADVANCE initiatives, female faculty members in STEM fields are supported and encouraged throughout their careers, Ruhlandt said.

One of the initiatives ADVANCE started is one that accommodates women so that they are able to have both a successful career and a family, Ruhlandt added.

“It’s important to show them that you do not need to choose, that you can have both, and that you can have a fulfilled life with family and kids and a successful career in STEM,” Ruhlandt said.

Ruhlandt said as a woman in STEM she is “certainly a role model for (her) students” in that she demonstrates that it is “absolutely possible to have a successful career as a woman in the STEM disciplines.”

Ashlee Thibaud, a junior biochemistry major, said as a woman in STEM, she has noticed a steady increase in the number of women in her classes and the number of female professors she has. However, she said, there are instances where she is one of three women and the only black woman in her class.

“There’s a sentiment of carrying the entire black race and all of womanhood on my shoulders that sometimes makes me feel pressured to be the best in all of my classes,” Thibaud said in an email. “This sometimes makes me unwilling to ask for clarification or otherwise get help in class.”

Chante Williams, a sophomore Earth sciences major, said as a woman of color it is easy in the STEM field to feel like “a minority within a minority.”

“However, being a part of WiSE has provided a community space where I can connect with other minority students in STEM and can discuss issues pertinent to us as well as support each other,” Williams said in an email.

One of the problems women in STEM fields face is the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon in which women gradually drop out of the STEM fields as they progress through their academic careers, said Stephanie Wyatt, program assistant for WiSE.

The WiSE program aims to plug the holes in that leaky pipeline with programs designed to address challenges women face from the time they enter as freshmen to the time they become professionals, Wyatt said in an email.

The program promotes the idea that inclusion and diversity foster innovation, Wyatt said. She added that a scientific workforce that more closely resembles the demographics of the public is better equipped to address the problems and concerns of a diverse populace.

Ruhlandt said she thinks society is now accepting that STEM fields need to have involvement from everyone, even if it is a slow process.

“It’s a cultural change to be more inclusive. This is nothing that you do in two years. You have to keep working and working and working,” Ruhlandt said. “We have to support it for many years even if the progress is slow.

“We need to keep on supporting it because everything that we have gained and all the successes we had, they will go away if we don’t keep on supporting it,” she said.

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